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Venting vs. Processing Emotions

Venting vs. Processing Emotions: How to get lasting change.

A normal response after an infuriating day is to call a friend or family member to vent about what happened. Voicing the frustration lets off the steam that has built up with boiling emotions, leading to a release. However, has anything changed? Was the situation resolved? Usually not. Venting allows a release of frustration but does not solve the problem. You may find validation and comfort from your friend, but the situation remains.

Processing emotions, on the other hand, works differently. It is purposeful. When you process emotions, you are digging deep to understand your emotional reaction and to understand what happened in the situation. The goal is to gain freedom from pain and to have a healthy view of yourself and others in the process. It is reflecting on the situation with curiosity and introspection like a detective trying to find the culprit.

Common questions you may ask yourself are:

  • When have I felt this way before?

  • What did this situation remind me of?

  • Did the situation remind me of a particular person?

  • What were emotions that may have been lying under the surface of anger, such as fear, jealousy, betrayal, etc.?

  • Why did this situation occur?

  • Could I have done something differently to minimize the damage or de-escalate the conflict?

  • Do I have insecurities that were triggered?

  • Did the situation make me feel unsafe? If so, what do I need to do to feel safe again?

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When you process emotions, you are connecting your brain and your heart – your logic and your feelings so that you can better understand what happened. You may have a large emotional reaction without understanding why. Once you put words to your experience with a sense of wanting to understand, you will be able to understand the situation as a whole instead of just your emotional response to it.

Many people want to come into counseling sessions wanting to vent their frustration for emotional release. Counselors must be prepared to take things to a deeper level to bring resolution. It is wise to begin with active listening and empathetic responses, but we can't stop there. We must continue to reflect and respond in ways to encourage the person to dig deeper to find the core of the problem.

From a cognitive-behavioral perspective, there is likely a misbelief or cognitive distortion at the core of the problem. As the story is told, it is important to consider the perspective, assumptions, and intentions that are discussed. Was the problem about unmet expectations? Was there an error in communication? Was the response congruent with the situation? Getting to the heart of the issue can be like peeling an onion one layer at a time. You have to peel through emotions, observations, interpretations, and past experiences to arrive at the core belief driving the emotional response. Once you reveal the core, it can be dealt with appropriately.


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